Not since 1820 has a US jury carried a piracy conviction. That changed yesterday when five Somali men found guilty of attacking the USS Nicholas were sentenced to life in prison in a Norfolk Federal Court. The sentencing might be a drop in the bucket given the current piracy endemic, but was nonetheless a significant step forward – symbolically and legally – in the fight that wages daily off the Horn off Africa.
The pirates’ defense centered on the claim that they had been abducted and forced to fire their weapons on the Nicholas. Judge Mark Davis ruled in favor of the government and sentenced the men to life in prison plus an additional 80 years for the use of illegal firearms. Life in prison is a tough but reasonable (and in fact, mandatory) sentence considering piracy is a universal crime (the legal cousin of slavery and genocide), and that the last convicted pirate that stood before a US court for sentencing was put to death.
US Attorney Neil MacBride led a landmark case not only because his conviction demonstrates to the American people that the US Navy is determined to interdict and arrest pirates at sea, but also to the world that the US Justice Department is willing and able to prosecute and convict pirates at home.
This sentence also sends a message back to the pirate camps that litter the Somalian coast: if you attack a US ship, you will be captured and jailed for life. Or, as has been the fate of at least two pirates on the Quest and Maersk Alabama in the past two years, worse.
And the Justice Department isn’t done with pirates yet.
Fourteen suspected pirates have recently been indicted by a federal grand jury for their involvement in the attack on the yacht Quest which resulted in the murder of Jean and Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. They will face piracy, kidnapping and firearms charges. Currently there are no murder charges as the investigation is on-going.
While the legal impact of this case is indeed in the landmark realm, it’s true the immediate impact of the Nicholas convictions will be nominal with respect to the number of attacks in the short term. It does, however, send an important political message to other nations with a stake in security in the region in the mid to long term. With nearly 800 Somali pirates in prisons in 14 different countries awaiting trial (and hundreds more simply released due to the legal complexity of such cases) the message from the US is this: piracy is an intolerable crime whose thugs will be prosecuted vigilantly and convicted to full extent of the law.
Will other nations that patrol these troubled waters with us follow course?